On a recent nightly news, I witnessed the tragic scene of a Turkish father wailing over the bodies of his wife and young children who had been crushed under debris from the February earthquake. Tears flooded my eyes and my body bent into the posture of mourning; the emotional distress of a stranger a continent away had become my own. Was this an automatic empathic response, an act of mimicry or emotional contagion? How do these affective states differ?
In “The Social Neuroscience of Empathy,” social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Klaus Lamm define mimicry as “the tendency to automatically synchronize affective expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements with those of another person.”[i] If I see you crying, I cry, but my response is automatic and not the result of my ability to feel what you are feeling. In one study, when participants were shown photographs of sad faces, their pupil size mimicked the pupil size of the people in the photographs they were shown.[ii] This provides evidence that mimicry occurs outside our awareness.
Emotional contagion, like mimicry, is related to empathy and is sometimes thought of as a primitive type of empathy in which one person “catches” another person’s emotions. The word “catches” reflects the infectious quality of the phenomena. For instance, before they have developed any sense of an individual self, babies cry when exposed to other crying babies. Anyone who has attended a tense football game or soccer match can feel emotional contagion at work in the crowd.
Emotional contagion can occur at political rallies, in combat zones, in mass protests and revolutions, at public killings, or in ecstatic religious rites. Within families, emotional contagion can set the tenor of a household. A sensitive child may absorb a mother’s non-verbally expressed depression or a father’s pent-up anger and feel it as their own.
A personal experience comes to mind: when my sister was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, I had difficulty separating her family’s panic from my own unexamined feelings and was swept up in the family trauma. At that moment, my feelings were undifferentiated from the family’s. The ability to be attuned to the inner lives of others is a great asset for me as a novelist who delves deeply into her characters’ unconscious fears and desires; but my characters’ problems stay on the page, not in my heart.
An undifferentiated self is unable to identify, protect and separate their thoughts, feelings, and intuitions from those of others. Differentiation requires self-awareness and the ability to know one’s internal world and express it to others without fear. While it’s important to be aware of the emotional state of others, internalizing their distress can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate helpful action based on altruistic love.
Perhaps not surprisingly, current social neuroscience research points to gender differences for men and women in studies on empathy. In the largest study to date in 2022, Cambridge University scientists performed 312,579 “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” tests on adolescents and adults across 57 countries and found that women on average scored higher for “cognitive empathy” in 36 of the 57 countries. In no country did men score better on “cognitive empathy.”[iii] Cognitive empathy is when someone is intellectually able to understand what someone else is feeling or thinking. Researchers distinguish this from affective or emotional empathy when someone feels another’s emotions and responds with an emotion. In this test, participants were asked to guess the facial expression just by looking at a pair of eyes. You can take a version of this ten-minute test here.
Empathy is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and is foundational to our existence as social creatures. Without empathy, we would be unable to perceive the suffering of others and take steps to alleviate it. Without empathy, we would feel lost and alone in a cold and indifferent universe.
As Lamm and Singer take pains to note, “Empathy crucially depends upon self-awareness and self/other distinction, that is, on our ability to distinguish between whether the source of our affective experience lies within ourselves or was triggered by the other.”
Mimicry or emotional contagion usually precede empathy which precedes sympathy and compassion, which in turn may lead to prosocial behavior.
But empathy burn-out is also a fact of life, especially for those engaged in caregiving services. Richard Davidson, Founder and Director of The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a renowned and rigorous investigator of the neuroscience of happiness, compassion, and empathy. Functional MRI scanning has enabled Dr. Davidson and his team of scientists to study the brains of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other long-term meditators and monks. One conclusion Davidson has drawn from his research: while the ability to feel our common humanity is essential to a cohesive, caring world, empathy without the skill of compassion diminishes our capacity to be of help.
Compassion is other-centered (feeling for); empathy brings us back to a focus on our own suffering in response to the suffering of others (feeling with). During the height of the COVID pandemic, we saw medical personnel and other front-line workers expressing mental and physical exhaustion, what popular science calls “empathy fatigue.” This is not limited to the helping professions but can occur within families and groups where difficulties may abound.
As Richard Davidson writes, “When people experience raw empathy, regions of the brain associated with pain and negative emotions become more active rather than the brain regions associated with positive feelings and a capacity to view things from another’s perspective. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.”[iv]
To cultivate compassionate regions of the brain, Davidson suggests noticing what small gestures we can undertake when someone needs help—offering to carry a heavy grocery bag for an elderly person or aiding someone in crossing a busy street. Infinite possibilities exist for enacting daily random acts of kindness. Dr. Davidson and other spiritual teachers offer guided meditations on fortifying the neural networks for compassion. Big changes are not necessary to alter our attitude and understanding of how individuals can contribute more fully to a more compassionate world.
[ii] Harrison, N. A., Singer, T., Rotshtein, P., et al. (2006). Pupillary contagion: Central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing. Soc. Cogn. Affect Neurosci., 1, 5–17.
[iii] Greenberg, David M. Sex and age differences in “theory of mind” across 57 countries using the English version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test, PNAS, September, 2022
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”